Open The Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter

Craig Jolley BY

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Open The Door Open The Door
William R. Bauer
Univ of Michigan Press
ISBN: 019514838X

Betty Carter came up as a bebop-only singer in the late 40's. She gradually broadened and deepened her music, enduring what she perceived as failed career over the next 25 years. Beginning with an engagement at the Keystone Corner (San Francisco) in 1975 she turned it around. A demanding and stubborn bandleader Carter won the respect (if not the affection) of the musicians who played with her. She was one of the first jazz musicians with her own record label (Bet-Car) and maintained a strong presence in the business and promotional aspects of her career. She ultimately won acceptance and popularity through equal portions of talent and tenacity. She was most noted for her scatting, but she was also an accomplished ballad singer who often interpreted a lyric's meaning something like the songwriter's intent. Unlike the many vocalists who just scat (or sing words) with whatever syllables come to mind, Carter paid attention to vowel and consonant sounds. As a simple example she tended to use aspirated consonants (p, t, k, f, s) to produce strong accents.

William Bauer, Assistant Professor of Music at Rutgers University and director of a student vocal ensemble there, began this biography with Carter's endorsement and participation. A few months into the project she was diagnosed with cancer, and lived only a few more weeks. The early chapters are flavored with the author's interviews with her. Bauer apparently enjoyed full cooperation from her family, friends, business associates, and collaborating musicians including her long-time accompanist John Hicks. Bauer respects Carter's privacy within reason (He does not pull punches.) and focuses on factors that affected her music, but this is a personal book (written with love) that explores Carter as a woman who went up against racial and sexual bigotry among many barriers to sucess. She was often her own worst enemy. The reader feels closely in touch with Carter.

The book can be read on three levels: Carter's biography and career (most of the book); development and maturity of her music with discussion of her records; transcriptions of representative solos (words and/or scat) together with in-depth analysis of each solo. Bauer has invented a phonetic system to notate the pronunciation, accents, and rhythms of her solos that gives insight into what she was up to. The non-technical reader can easily skip the transcriptions, but if her recordings (preferably CD's) are available it is not difficult to follow along. Elapsed times are given for some solos, and the phonetic system is intuitive—it can be generally understood by the average person.

A discography (record titles and recording dates only) and a videography, including several private recordings not available to the general public, appear as appendices. Open the Door is probably the most scholarly and informative biography of a jazz singer published so far.


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